In other posts there is articulation of teacher expectation as a driver for learning progress, as well as of differentiation forms. Both are argued in terms of personalised target setting, especially as personalisation describes aspects of Inclusive practice.
The main problem with levels, where it manifests itself in discussion, is the suggestion that they limit progress in some way and, where tasking for learning seeks to match exactly the needs of a learner, this can be the case. However, if they are seen as a baseline capability, with more open tasking, they can provide the basis for judgement through active engagement with the learning activity. Level descriptors can be seen as both capability descriptors, by achievement, and descriptors of the child’s learning journey.
The value of the SoS decision might be that schools look again at all their practices in Learning and Teaching. Other descriptors already overlay the personalisation/capability discussion; top, middle, bottom groups; HA, MA, LA; G&T, SEN. All of these, in the absence of individualised descriptors can become unspecific and unhelpful in supporting progress. Being “bottom” of the “top” group can lead to the frustration of the task being set above the ability of the most able child, or the reverse, with failure or coasting behaviours manifest. “All must, most should and some could” success criteria, while seeking to articulate inclusive challenge, are unspecific and may not direct the challenge of specific learners.
Based on the classic bell curve of distribution, teachers sift and sort their pupils into working groups. Flippantly, this can become differentiation by the number of seats around a table, by available resources or by the wish to ensure that the class TA has a reasonable sized group. Sadly, this reasoning has, at times, been articulated to the writer.
The “muddled middle”
It is the case when meeting a class for the first time that the chatterers, the challengers, the articulate and confident manifest themselves early in the teacher mind. Those not in the able or lower ability groups can be lumped together as the middle. Whatever sifting methodology is adopted, the outcome is a label, the articulation of which might determine the progress made within a particular class.
The borderline pupils are worthy of consideration in this regard. What difference is there between the last name in the top group and the first in the next? If the answer is one mark on a test, are the learning needs sufficiently different that they cannot work together? In streams and sets this problem can be exaggerated. With ability sifting at age 11, this can be of greater concern, as it determines more overtly a child’s future.
The middle is simply a narrower ability range, with its own upper and lower ends. Those at the upper end will have similar attributes to the top, while some at the lower end will have similarities to the lower group. Some schools and some classes in some schools will not have classic bell curve cohorts e. g. the top of one class might constitute the middle in another setting, there might be an exaggerated upper group or lower “tail”.
Children with the same levelness description do not necessarily have the same abilities nor the same progress needs.
Accurate description is essential; learners can be grouped and challenged differently, but overlaying personalised expectation can redress some shortcomings of group tasking, or even of whole class activity.
What next? Reflective agenda.
In the absence of an articulated alternative, schools are likely to retain current systems, as they are a constituent part of the school vocabulary of learning description.
That creates time for reflection on alternative approaches that allow current practice to evolve .
Schools which have viewed assessment as action after learning might wish to consider the holistic aspects of Assessment for Learning, where the outcomes from one lesson inform subsequent decisions, turning AfL into descriptors of capability and expectation. Every lesson and outcome is an assessment opportunity, at a general or diagnostic level. Assessment does not need to mean a dedicated testing week.
Schools may wish to look at the impact of sub-levels and tracking through Assessing Pupil Progress (APP); whether a rigorous application of these has limited the learning of significant children. Is this system more useful as a diagnostic tool for specific individual needs?
NC level descriptors can be easily articulated as capability descriptors. This would allow schools to maintain some of their current data management practices.
Consider a differential approach to assessment, with learners taking greater charge of their learning through engagement with their individualised progress descriptors. This assumes that all learners have a personalised learning “ladder” relevant to their current ability attached to their exercise book so that it flips out and can be seen while working. If, at the end of the task, the child can look at the progress descriptor, identify a statement which is evidenced within their work and highlight this to the teacher, this can be acknowledged within marking, so creating a learning dialogue. This approach develops the child’s awareness of themselves as learners, their self-assessment skill; an improvement on traffic lights, smiley faces or thumbs up/down, which can all pay lip service to AfL.
We live in interesting times………